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Authors

  1. Hozman, Suellen BS, RN

Article Content

The audience huddles at round tables in the big room. The tables are set; there are cloth napkins. There's a raised platform for the speakers and fundraisers. Then it begins. Quiche, fruit, and pep talks. First, the executive director of Making Strides Against Breast Cancer gives the I'm-so-moved-at-the-outpouring-of-support speech. Next, time is given to the businesses that pledged the largest amount of money to the organization. You'd recognize the names. They're the big employers in your community. Finally, there is the survivor.

 

She is upbeat, grateful, and hopeful-despite the chemo, radiation, and surgery. She's in her 30s. She has small children. She smiles when she describes how much she loves her doctors and nurses. She says that she's a better person now. She doesn't describe the indigestible images of cancer: nonanesthetized injections at the tumor site, breasts and nipples inflamed from radiation. The audience finds her inspiring; their quiche goes down just fine.

 

I admire the survivor. I'm happy for her strength and spirit. I feel terrible that she got breast cancer at such a young age, before her children were grown. As a single parent, I asked not to die until my boys were grown. I got that wish.

 

But there's another side to the cancer story.

 

I joined the club on May 8, 2000. I was at my mother's apartment when I called my doctor's office for my results. I was shocked. So was my mother. "And you eat vegetables," she said. "You never know." At 86, a first-generation American born of Russian Jewish parents, my mother knew something about life's absence of guarantees.

 

From the beginning, my close friends and immediate family were wonderful. After the diagnosis, my good friend Robert drove me to my son Joshua's house. Joshua, who fills a doorway, held me, wept, and said, "Mom, we're doing this together."

  
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But it was different with acquaintances. With them, conversations would go like this:

 

"I have breast cancer."

 

"Oh, I know an aunt [sister, wife, friend, coworker] who had breast cancer."

 

How should I have responded? Need I have asked to hear their stories and braced myself to learn about the dead ones? Is this a breast cancer competition? I wanted to ask, "Do you want me to feel good about my diagnosis just because I'm still alive?" It stunned me that coworkers and acquaintances found it so hard to simply listen. Why was it so uncommon for someone to say, "I'm sorry for your pain"?

 

I tried a local support group. The stories from the young women dealing with second and third occurrences were too brutal. It reminded me of my childhood neighbors, Holocaust survivors with numbers on their arms. It felt like breast cancer genocide. I made it to only one meeting.

 

So I became private, no longer sharing my diagnosis in casual interactions. I needed all my emotional reserves to survive the damn treatments. The cancer never hurt until I agreed to get cured.

 

There's no cookie-cutter treatment for breast cancer. Mine was mine: two surgeries, six weeks of radiation, and 13 months of tamoxifen (Nolvadex). It caused vocal chord disturbance, resurrection of irritable bowel syndrome, first-ever asthma symptoms, nonstop vaginal yeast infections, and atrophic vaginitis. Tamoxifen was killing me. But no alternate drug options were made available, even after I asked my oncologist. So I simply stopped taking it.

 

But I never stopped working. I received radiation at 7:15 AM and was usually at work by 8. No one brought me food, mowed my lawn, offered to take me out, or brought me a candle. As a single parent since 1978, I've come to be known as independent and self-sufficient. I didn't ask for help; I just continued on, day by day. There are millions like me out there who didn't win the Tour de France after cancer.

 

So I'm not a better person as a result of cancer. I'm unattractively hypochondriacal. I feel a pain in my groin after my daily walk and wonder if it's the first sign of pelvic cancer. Cancer wasn't my epiphany. It was painful and lonely. I'm the other cancer story. And I'm still alive.